Winter is coming, and for cities like Chicago, it's bringing a lot more than snow.
"The most fundamental thing is they need access to permanent, stable housing," said Doug Schenkelberg.
According to 2021 data collected by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, more than 68,000 Chicagoans are currently without a permanent place to call home—a situation that can turn deadly in a city that is known for experiencing brutal winters.
But as temperatures begin to drop, these folks aren't the only ones shelters and homeless organizations are preparing to serve. More than 19,000 migrants have arrived in the city, putting Chicago's resources for the homeless to the test.
"It's definitely putting an additional strain," Schenkelberg said.
Schenkelberg is the director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a more than 40-year-old nonprofit that advocates for public policies to end homelessness.
"Migrants being in Chicago or other city's homeless service system is not new. What we're dealing with, though, is just an increase in numbers that we have never seen before," Schenkelberg said. "It's not something that the city budgeted for. It's not something that we have the infrastructure for."
In September, Chicago signed a nearly $30 million contract with a private security firm to construct 'winterized base camps' to temporarily house migrants this winter. But that decision hasn't been well received by some residents in the working-class neighborhood of Brighton Park. The neighborhood, home to a large number of Latino and Asian residents, has been protesting the construction of one of these 'winterized base camps,' citing safety concerns and a lack of transparency from the city. These frustrations have led to packed community meetings and even a physical confrontation with a city alderwoman.
"It puts a strain on the community because there's the needs of people who have been experiencing homelessness prior to migrants coming to the city in this volume who need services as well," Schenkelberg said. "So, one thing that, you know, we've talked about and other organizations have talked about is that we shouldn't be pitting populations against each other. We should have better services to serve everybody."
So how is the city working to make that happen?
"We want to make homelessness brief and non-recurring. A lot of the work we do is around quickly wrapping around individuals, so getting them into a shelter, connecting them with friends and family, and making sure that their shelter stays are brief," said Brandie Knazze. "We're planning to open an additional 300 emergency winter beds. We're working with our partners to make sure that they're prepared."
Knazze is the commissioner of the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services.
Knazze says the city's rental assistance program has been crucial in working to keep families in homes and move others quickly out of shelters. And as for balancing the added pressure of incoming migrants?
"When you think about our strategy for new arrivals, it's around one, expanding capacity, right? Brick and mortar and our base camp structures. The second thing is really around making sure that we're driving down cost. So, we currently have an RFP out for our meals. And so, the goal is really looking about how can we find cost savings. Third thing is about quickly wrapping people with resettlement," Knazze said.
But she notes that "we've got to make sure that people come with benefits because, you know, interior cities cannot shoulder the entire burden."
Schenkelberg says if there was ever a moment for Chicago and its residents to really step up and address homelessness, it's now.
"I think the one thing that this moment allows us to talk about more clearly is that if you don't have a long-term strategy to address homelessness, we're going to continue to be in the cycle where we react to emergencies and try to scramble resources together like we're doing right now with this influx of migrants into the city, rather than thinking about how do we create the infrastructure so that fewer people are experiencing homelessness to begin," Schenkelberg said.
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